In the spring of 2009, I was living in small-town Oregon, forty miles from the coast. In the seven months since I had left Pakistan, I had celebrated my first Christmas, learned the rules of basketball, and become the first brown cheerleader at Triangle Lake High. The teachers were fond of me, although I found the kids silent and brooding, reciting passages from Thoreau in the dull register of the condemned. The day I scored a 100% on the 50 States quiz, no one talked to me for the rest of class. I told myself not to feel bad; it wasn’t my fault Americans couldn’t remember the fifty names that made up their union.
The previous August, I had flown from Rawalpindi to my host parents’ home near Eugene. On the flight to Washington D.C, the captain made an announcement:
“Folks, we have on board with us a very special group of teenagers. They are on their way from Pakistan to America, to spend a year in our country as cultural ambassadors. Let’s give them a round of applause!”
A blond woman sitting by my side looked at the bright red shirt I was wearing, “Youth Exchange and Study Program” painted in white. She smiled at me and I shyly smiled back. I had said teary goodbyes to my family just hours ago, but I could already feel America’s charm tugging at me, its wide grin eclipsing my past.
Linda and Larry Avery, my host parents, were sixty-year old transplants from Michigan and lived in Blachly, a town of 300 people. The day after they picked me up from the airport, I woke up in their cottage alone. Linda had left a note by my bed, her slanted hand informing me that she had stepped out for a bit but would be back in a few hours. I sat with my legs dangling down a foreign bed, with its turquoise sheets and a pillow that felt too soft. I began to cry with gasping sounds, homesick. The house sat on a hill and oversaw a lake. As the August sunshine streamed in, funneled through thin linen curtains, all I could hear was the sound of my own breathing. Five minutes later, I got up, opened up my suitcase, and began to unpack.
With its wooden floors and plush armchairs, the cottage soon felt like home to me. All the stories I had grown up reading were set in the English countryside or some American suburb, not under the fluorescent lights and between the austere, distempered walls of houses back in Pakistan. The Avery house, with its chimney and slanted roof, from behind which the sun peeked every day, was the childhood doodle incarnate.
In the first month, I had some trouble making friends at school. After the initial questions about where I came from and whether I liked America, my conversations with the other kids stalled, neither party sure what to talk about next. At home, however, I was never in want of conversation. Linda frequently came to my room and, standing in the doorframe, filled me in on seemingly everything I had missed in the last sixty years of her life. She told me what part of rural Ireland her ancestors were from. She told me about the 1960’s hippie movement that had charmed both her and Larry to the West Coast. As she said this, I imagined her silver hair sprinkled with flowers and ribbons, her legs clad in the loose pants I regularly wore back home.
My parents called frequently, the telephone ringing right as we got done with dinner.
“Hello, Tanvir! How are you?” Linda loved picking up the phone, even if, perhaps especially if, the call was not for her. She would talk to my father for a while, filling him in on the latest things I had been up to.
“Oh yes, I am taking Dure to the beach for the first time tomorrow. Isn’t that so cool?” She would peer at me from above her glasses, her face breaking into a pleased smile.
During one of these calls, I told my father I had been attending church with Linda every Sunday. His voice, usually cheerful over the long-distance line, became heavy. I imagined his forehead creasing with worry.
“Tell her you don’t want to attend. You’re a Muslim, what’s your business going to a church?”
I did not demur on the phone, but continued to go on most Sundays. I knew Linda enjoyed having me around. After every service, she would introduce me to any new face she saw.
“Have you met our Pakistani girl, Dure? She is such a delight!”
Once, I even put on a fashion show at church, soliciting the girls in my class to wear the shalwar kameez I had brought from home and catwalk across the altar. It was a brief performance and we giggled throughout, but afterwards, people came up to commend me.
“Dure, we loved the Pakistani clothes,” they gushed, twisting both names far beyond the pronunciations I had grown up with.
I liked church. The hymns and stories were novel for me. The service seemed more orderly and graceful than the mosques I had visited a few times. This was the American year in my Pakistani life, and I was eager to check off all the firsts: my first beach, my first prom, my first church.
One Sunday in March, Kelly Goodwin approached me at church after service had ended. Kelly was the school librarian, a slim woman in her late thirties. She often talked to me when I went to the library, pointing out new titles or discussing books we had both read. That day, she said to me, “Boy, do I have a fun surprise for you tomorrow. We just got a new book at the library, and it’s about Pakistan!”
I wasn’t overly interested. I had spent the past seven months making apple cider and visiting Disneyland. Since August, I had met Pakistanis once: family friends who invited me to their fancy suburban house in New Jersey and ate curry every day. I had been very happy to fly back to Eugene. Pakistan felt far away, made real only by my parents’ phone calls.
The next day, Kelly gave me the book as soon as I walked into the library. The cover was yellow, with a picture of two girls bent over a textbook. They looked five years old, and wore dark shawls covering their hair and torsos. They had timid smiles on their faces. Over the next few days, I made my way through the book. It told the story of an American humanitarian, Greg Mortenson, who had traveled to the remote northern parts of Pakistan to build schools there. Some of these were places I had visited during summer holidays, when the heat of the plains drove many families to northern towns and hamlets. Mortenson spoke of the beauty of these areas, but also described the sordid poverty and traditional mindsets. He described the many hardships he had faced: financial constraints, rugged terrain, a kidnapping by the Taliban. In the face of it all, he had stood resolute and determined to provide education for the children of Pakistan.
I was enthralled by the story. The night I finished the book, I wrote in my journal:
“I am so grateful for the book for reminding me how beautiful a country I am from, for washing away the disillusionment that had been building up from far away. Through his words, I can see the forgotten landscape of Pakistan. America, it seems, is reflecting my country back at me.”
I gave the book to Linda, who loved it just as much as I did.
“What a selfless man. To make those sacrifices in such a dangerous place,” she said, as we sat having dinner one night. “I didn’t realize the state of education in your country was so bad.”
“The literacy rate is abysmal,” I said as I shook my head in disappointment, recalling a statistic I had read in the newspaper a few years ago. Papers back home were always bemoaning the low number of people who could write their own name down on paper.
“Well,” she replied. “Good thing you have this guy there to take care of things!”
On an evening in early May, I stood waiting in line with hundreds of people at the University of Oregon, the book in my hand. A few hours before, Linda and I had driven up to Eugene to hear Mortenson give a talk in front of 7,000 people. Hearing him speak about his work, his voice soft and words humble, made my heart swell. It was the same feeling I had experienced on the flight to D.C., when the woman had turned and smiled at me.
As we stood in the line for autographs, I thought of what I would say to him. I wanted to tell him that I was from Pakistan, that he had done more for my country than I could ever imagine doing. I wanted to tell him how grateful I felt. When we got to the front of the line, Linda took a photo of us that I still have. In it, I’m wearing a bright pink sweatshirt that I used to be proud of, one I had bought from the Walmart in Eugene. He’s wearing a sharp grey suit and smiling that American smile, all teeth. As he signed my book, I got tongue-tied, forgetting everything I had thought of saying. All I said, quietly, was “Shukriya”. Thank you. He appeared not to have heard it.
In the summer of 2011, I was back home in Pakistan. I sat in my room with my laptop open, clothes strewn around me with their tags still on. I had spent the past few months buying new Western clothes: the ones from Oregon either didn’t fit or looked shabby to me. I browsed through the website of the New England college I was attending in the fall, excited for the lush green quads shown in the photos. No place in Pakistan was that green, except the north. Suddenly, I remembered the book and searched for his name on Google. Greg Mortenson.
The query returned several recent news items. There was a New York Times piece from April, alleging that he had fabricated large parts of his story. Many of the schools he wrote about did not exist. He had embezzled donor money. The Guardian wrote about Mansur Khan Mahsud, a Pakistani who had come forward to denounce Mortenson’s claim that he was kidnapped. Mahsud said Mortenson was a guest at his family’s house for ten days, not a prisoner. He told the Guardian:
“He’s defamed me, my family, my tribe. We are respected people in my area. He’s turned us into kidnappers.”
I finished the Guardian story, then snapped the laptop shut. A cool evening breeze came in through the open window. I heard a flock of birds singing on their way home. A swell of rage rushed to my throat and I struggled to breathe. I did not question whether the articles were telling the truth. I knew they were telling the truth. It made sense somehow, like waking up from a dream and finding yourself in the same bed you went to sleep in.
But how had so many people readily believed him for so many years? I wondered if Linda knew. Swiftly, I picked up my laptop to email her but stopped. I told myself I didn’t want her to feel the same bitter disappointment that I was feeling. Looking back, I can see that I was worried she might not feel anything at all, that she might write back with a shrug, half-remembering who Mortenson was.
Linked to the New York Times news story was an op-ed by an esteemed columnist, reminding readers that “even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.”
I clenched my teeth, seething at this age-old American innocence, the belief that at the end of the day, Americans meant well and, really, that ought to be enough. Enough to claim the perch of fame, the pedestal of saviors. I thought of the thousands of men and women in my country transforming lives everyday without their faces printed on magazine covers.
Something pricklier sat below my anger: shame. I had believed in Mortenson with the fervor of the religious. I had donated to his campaign, come back with a book for my father, written a piece in the local newspaper praising him. Sitting in my room, I thought back to the day at the University of Oregon. I thought of his wide smile, of my “Shukriya”. I was reminded of the Janissaries—Ottoman soldiers kidnapped as children from Christian homes, trained to fight their own people one day.
I looked around me at the t-shirts and jeans I would wear in New England soon. America was waiting to smile at me, again and yet again.